The Chicago Bulls and the culture of fitting in

The fact that Tom Thibodeau made no effort to fit in is the main reason he is longer the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.
Gregory Shamus/NBAE via Getty Images

By Bart Doan

Have you ever been a part of a panel job interview? And I’m not talking about being the sweating dude with a bunch of resumes on the other side of the desk. I’m talking about being the one asking the questions.

Sometime after all of the candidates have been interviewed, selections for finalists are made. The question always gets asked, and it’s the one that always pushes the person who’s hired over the one who’s not: how do you think she/he will fit in here?

“I know Sue doesn’t have the same experience as Jane, but I think she’s a bitter fit here for our office.”

From the time we’re thrust into play dates as infants, preschool, kindergarten, middle school, and so on, all the way up the job ladder, joining clubs or teams, or even when you’re long retired hanging out at the local Moose Lodge … nothing much really changes culturally. It’s all about how you fit in.

For the Chicago Bulls, fitting in is their postulate, which is why Tom Thibodeau is no longer their coach and Fred Hoiberg — by way of Ames, Iowa — is. No one could look at Hoiberg’s resume and suggest he was more fit for a head coaching job of a team on the precipice of playing for an NBA title versus Thibodeau.

But Tom didn’t try to fit in, apparently, and didn’t apologize for it. He was going to do it his way, which is cool when you win stuff, but if you don’t, the rope is thin, short, and always strung out over a fire pit losing strength. Thibodeau won plenty, though not the championships, and that’s the stuff where it doesn’t matter what type of personality you have — the addiction to winning is like expensive cologne that mitigates the underlying stench of not getting along.

It’s clear Thibodeau didn’t get along with his bosses, which is always a tenuous place to be no matter who’s right and who’s wrong. The Bulls aren’t exonerated of fault, though. How they let him go was petty at best, and it doesn’t speak high volumes when you railroad a guy publicly after you can him, no matter how much distaste is in the tap water.

At some point, the Bulls’ front office will be taking phone calls from some other NBA team looking to hire Thibodeau, and that’s when you can give your honest assessment, behind closed doors, not to the bloodthirsty public, looking for the lowest of low hanging fruit.

It probably won’t matter, because Thibodeau is good and some team, somewhere, soon, will just want the instant gratification of winning and probably should be fairly hands-off in the front office regarding the on-court stuff. Pro sports teams are complex in the sense that the general management team and the coaching staff have the same utopian goal of titles, but often different ancillary things to think about along the way.

For Thibodeau, it’s all about winning and squeezing every last blood from the turnip to get there. For front offices, things like contracts, what to do with a certain player down the road, etc., factor into the whole picture. It’s not just winning, but how you win. It’s why with the exception of a very few folks, like a Bill Belichick (and pretty much that’s it right now), major success rarely happens when front office and coach are the same dude.

The best working relationships are collaborative while working in their own silos. Both parties, in these healthy relationships, are willing to be pliable and at least discuss the best way to get to the common goal. Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front office couldn’t get along on the playground, which, still, is the most fundamental of human behaviors.

As for Hoiberg, as I always say, don’t go looking for the girl who’s the exact opposite of the girl you just dated. People do it all the stinking time, and it never fails to fail. There’s something, even in the worst moments, that you liked about that person you were with and made you fall for them. Actively seeking out the exact opposite often makes you, in time, remember those things and all of a sudden, the old flame doesn’t seem so bad after all.

It’s not an indictment of Hoiberg so much as it is an indictment of the thought process. Hoiberg will get along with everyone just fine, and that’s why he’ll always have a place, somewhere. But there’s truth to the fact that Iowa State was weak on defense, and while the offense was player-friendly and high octane, the NCAA tournament showed the cracks in the pipes when the game gets slowed down and the pressure mounts … as all tournament situations tend to bring out.

No one knows what will happen with Hoiberg, other than the fact that he probably wasn’t going to see another job offer like this come around: a title contending ready-made team with a star player locked up for years to come in a mediocre conference. He’ll still, for all his niceness on the outside, be chasing the ghosts of Thibodeau’s success, and that cannot be easy.

But why he’s there and the guy that won a lot of games isn’t is pretty simple. It goes back to that very first recess when everyone’s playing super heroes or going down the tube slide: Hoiberg gets along with people, and Thibodeau didn’t. Some things … actually a lot of things … really never change.

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